‘wild wild country’ directors explain why you’re so obsessed with cults
Also, what's Sheela like IRL? And what's up with all those Levi's jeans?
Image courtesy of Netflix
If you haven’t finished watching Wild Wild Country, what do you and your friends even talk about? Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way’s documentary series about the Rajneeshee cult in 80s Oregon is currently consuming the minds of millennials in every country with Netflix access, inspiring monochromatic athleisure looks and making “Tough Titties” your new favorite default retort. There are also more nuanced and serious reasons that Wild Wild Country — and the cult’s surprisingly sympathetic members — has so enthralled us. The crazy plot is heavily informed by pertinent political topics such as voting rights, religious rights, immigration, and guns. And it will probably challenge your stance on the above more effectively than any partisan cable news show.
One thing the show doesn’t do is wrap the loose ends into a tiny bundle. While the Way brothers were in New York last week, i-D asked them all our lingering questions about Rajneeshpuram and the freewheeling followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Why is Ma Anand Sheela so badass? What’s with all those Levi’s jeans? Is there going to be a second season? Read on to find out. Obviously, spoilers abound.
How did you first find out about Rajneeshpurum? How on earth did it remain a secret for so long?
In 2014 we had just finished our first documentary in Portland, Oregon, and we met up with a film archivist who we had worked with before. He asked us what we were doing next and we didn’t really have any ideas that we were totally in love with. He said, “I’ve got 300 hours of unseen archive footage of the craziest story that ever happened in Oregon.” He gave us a brief rundown of what it was and we started doing some initial research. Besides all the crazy topics like cults, sex, and guns, it had this very complex underbelly of religious rights, immigration, and fear of the other. We just thought it would be incredible to dive into these topics in a longer format instead of just 90 minutes.
The plot really confronts liberal ideologies about civil rights and immigration.
We consider ourselves fairly liberal. We like to think that we’re open-minded and accepting of everything, and I think that the story really challenges the audience to figure out where their line of tolerance is, and when tolerance becomes something dangerous. There’s no black and white answer for that. What we’ve become excited by is people engaging in doing some critical thinking and really enjoying the grey area of the story, which is what we found most interesting.
Why do you think cults are such a big thing in the public imagination right now?
At least with our series, we found that the reception to a lot of our talking heads has been to how intelligent and seemingly normal they are, or how rational they can be, or how self aware they can be. That doesn’t mean that they’re always reliable or unreliable. I think a lot of people have a dismissive reaction towards cults. We were interested in peeling back the layers and exploring what family and community can look like. At some point, the interest in Bhagwan became less important to them than the feeling of community. I think Wild Wild Country is a story of how that devotion to a community or spiritual master can be manipulated so that people do things they shouldn’t have done. That was something we even heard from members inside the commune itself.
I’ve heard we’re obsessed with cults because we’re sort of living in a cult now, under Trump. Maybe it’s less about him and more about that greater sense of tribalism and identity.
Yeah, for sure. We’re living in a period of tribalism and identity politics. We gravitate towards people who think similar to us, or look similar to us, or have a similar background to us. For the millennial generation, I have a lot of friends who graduated after the economic collapse in 2008 and did everything they were supposed to do but are still struggling to find jobs. People are asking themselves if there’s more to life than just what we have right now. When the culture starts asking itself those questions, those ideas of cults and communities become intriguing topics.
Ma Anand Sheela has become an internet icon, even more than Bhagwan. What were your impressions of her?
The first thing we did in 2014 was to digitize all the archival footage. We would see this really feisty, foul-mouthed, provocative Indian woman who wasn’t taking crap from anyone. She was speaking her mind, and we were just blown away. We were immediately fascinated by her. We knew that if we wanted to do this in a longform series it would be really great to hear her perspective of these events. She seemed a little reluctant at first, but as soon as we started talking about the story, she started telling us that she felt like she’s never really been given a platform to tell her side of the story. She told us to ask any question we want. “I’ll sit down in that interview chair, and let’s do this.”
Sheela was most surprising to meet in person. She was branded an evil terrorist and now she runs these health clinics and hospitals for patients with dementia and alzheimers. We spent a lot of time there getting to know her even when we weren’t filming. It’s really incredible the work she does now and the new community that she’s built for these people that need help. It’s kind of just amazing to realize that a person can start at a point where she was released from prison in America, lived in Spain for a while and cleaned houses. It’s an amazing redemption story and I think Wild Wild Country pushes the audience to ask that question. Is everyone entitled to a second chance? Is everyone entitled to a redemption story?
I read that the Rajneeshees wore those incredible monochromatic outfits because the colors represented sunrise. Is that really why?
One of the explanations I got was the red sunrise colors. There was another thing I found really interesting, is that Rajneeshees or followers of Bhagwan call themselves “neo-sannyasins.” Sannyasin is a deep Hinduistic religious tradition in India. They’re ascetics, they’re all about rejection and they live impoverished lives. They wear these long, flowing orange robes and they grow out beads. They look, for want of a better word, homeless. Bhagwan was very much the opposite. He was like, “Have Rolls Royces, have sex, have money, and you can still reach enlightenment.” Bhagwan was a controversial, provocative guru, and in India it was very controversial when they kind of appropriated those orange clothes. Someone explained it to be as being like if young people in the Western world started wearing priest collars and priest robes and frollicking around making out. It would be a little shocking.
That kind of is fashion now. People are constantly appropriating religious garments or entire cultures.
Yeah, exactly! In India, it was highly controversial that they wore orange. In America, we didn’t really see it. Then it turned into red, and even purple at a certain point, then it became the sunrise colors. Overall, it was explained that devices were supposed be these external things that you get internal growth from. Supposedly, putting on all red or orange and a mala and going into the Western world was supposed to be a difficult thing for you. It was kind of a way of forcing followers to confront their families and tell their world that this was a decision they had made.
Did they make the clothes on the ranch?
In India they made them, they had a wooden sewing machine that we have footage of. At the ranch they had a pretty big import and export business, because the Rajneeshees would export produce, but they would also import things. Their style definitely changed when they came to America, not so much in terms of color but they become more American and western in their style of clothing. You see a lot more jeans. One of my favorite factoids is that Levi’s had an exclusive contract to bring in orange dyed jeans onto the ranch. You could only buy Levi’s jeans on the ranch.
That’s amazing. One thing I can’t stop thinking about is that horrific way they used beavers to contaminate the town’s water supply. What was the craziest story you heard that you didn’t include in the series?
We had had a section we called “A Day in the Life,” where we asked sannyasins about life on the range. Their answers were almost really beautiful in just how mundane they were. They would talk about waking up, getting tea or coffee, and going to work in their own department. It really spoke to the power of the community that they felt out there. Capturing that angle would have been really fascinating. I don’t know if you know a guy called Curtis Sliwa, he’s a conservative shock jock radio host, but he flew out to Portland in the 80s and kind of just went to war with Sheela on the ranch. He founded a group called Guardian Angels, which is this kind of street crime-fighting vigilante group, and we have some great footage of them going to war with Sheela.
Why do you think they filmed themselves so much? It’s 2018 and I don’t even have that much footage of my own life.
For sure, they were on the forefront. They really believed in the power of mass media. They had all these satellite communes all around the world, they would film what was going on at Rajneeshpuram, which was basically the holy land of this movement, then they would ship out VHS tapes to all the different communes around the world so they could stay up to date on what was happening outside of Rajneeshpurum. They believed that they were on the forefront of transforming the consciousness of the planet. They wanted to document this grand experiment. We were just really lucky that all that footage still exists.
Do you have enough footage to do a follow-up season?
It’s hard. It’s been a really interesting process. Even when we went to Sundance, between Sundance and the Netflix launch, it was still a very quiet story. Netflix is such a global company that when they launch your documentary series, you’re getting eyeballs on it all over the world. We’ve gotten a flood of information, new stories, different perspectives, things we didn’t know happened, different types of views of what happened on the ranch… it’s been fascinating going through it all. We’re kind of in the middle of that right now — vetting things and seeing if there’s something there. On the other hand, we did have six-and-a-half hours to say what we wanted to say about Rajneeshpuram. We’re just kind of working that out right now.
You could do a different cult?
Yeah, a lot of people have been sending us stuff and saying, “Do this!” It’s interesting. I feel like cults, with the Heaven’s Gate podcast and Waco, that we’re at the beginning of something bigger on cult documentaries. I think we’ll probably see a big explosion of them soon.